Re-Reading Love and Responsibility

Someone presumptuous enough to recommend some readings for those attending the 2015 Synod on the Family could undoubtedly put together an impressive list of books on marriage and sexual morality. Arguably, at the top of any such list belongs Karol Wojtyla’s classic work called Love and Responsibility. An appreciation of marriage as an indissoluble conjugal union presupposes a proper understanding of romantic or spousal love. For anyone open to the truth about such matters there is no better place to look for an exposition of love than Love and Responsibility.

This philosophical meditation was first published 55 years ago in 1960, when the cultural landscape was quite different. However, it seems to have anticipated the present code of sexual ethics which recognizes no constraints on sexual activity other than mutual consent. Love and Responsibility did not appear in English until 1981, three years after Cardinal Wojtya become Pope John Paul II. Its limited popularity is probably due to the fact that it has always been overshadowed by the Pope’s more prominent work, Theology of the Body.

Thanks to the Daughters of St. Paul, there is a new translation of Love and Responsibility that merits close attention because of its welcome precision. While the original translation was certainly competent, the new one is more consistent with the personalistic tone of Wojtyla’s provocative work. The translator, Gregorz Ignatik, has done a masterful job of capturing the subtleties of Wojtyla’s Polish prose which is not always clear or graceful. More importantly, this new translation allows the reader to see more exactly how Wojtyla’s book sheds light on the critical issues at the center of current debates about marriage and family. Karol Wojtyla meets philosophers on their own turf in order to persuade his readers that the sexual moral norms presented in Sacred Scripture can be substantiated by purely rational arguments. The result is a book that makes a lasting impression: an engaging response to the creed of absolute sexual liberation and the deconstruction of marriage.

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Wojtyla’s openness to different philosophical paradigms such as phenomenology gives him a fresh context to deal with these issues even though he never loses his metaphysical gaze. Love and Responsibility begins with an account of the human person, which lays the groundwork for his moral synthesis. Thanks to his or her rational nature, the person is an embodied, self-determining moral subject. Unlike the rest of material creation, the person is someone rather than something. The person lives his or her life “from within” in a way that revolves around the pursuit of truth and goodness.

There is a temptation to use persons the way we use material objects, to regard them as a pawns under our control. However, this moral attitude is inconsistent with a person’s nature. When we use someone in this fashion we treat that individual as an object rather than a free subject. Hence, argues Wojtyla, we are obliged to treat the person as an end and never as a mere means or an instrument. This requires respect for every person’s morally reasonable, self-chosen ends, rather than use of a person merely to achieve our own ends.

Wojtyla refers to this supreme moral principle as the personalistic norm, which serves as the axis about which his discussion on sexual morality revolves. If this general principle holds, it follows that it is also morally unacceptable to use people as sexual objects purely for our own satisfaction, even if the other person consents. With this standard in place, Wojtyla articulates three themes that serve as the central pillars of his sexual morality: the existential meaning of the sexual drive, an integral view of romantic love, and a personalistic vision of chastity.

Misunderstanding about love and sexuality often begins with confusion about the nature and purpose of our sexual capacities. The sexual drive is not an irrepressible instinct but a natural orientation to a person of the opposite sex. Wojtyla insists that we should not reduce the sexual drive to a biological force at our disposal. The “liberated” man or woman of the twenty-first century tends to regard the sexual drive simply as an instinct that should be emancipated from repressive cultural norms. But Wojtyla understands this sexual drive in a completely different way.

He argues convincingly that the sexual drive has an existential meaning, because the primary end or purpose of this drive is the perpetuation of the human species.   And yet the sexual drive is also the source of spousal love that leads to marriage. Thus, the sexual drive is the foundation for both love and procreation. Thanks to sexual reciprocity, this drive opens the way for a man and woman to fully love each other, and the sexual union formed by that love is naturally open to new life. Sexual union, love, and procreation, therefore, are intrinsically linked together.

When love is forcibly detached from procreation, it loses its “special character” and can no longer develop properly or come to fruition. Marital love must always be in harmony with the procreative purpose of this drive or mutual self-gratification begins to displace a full and fruitful union of persons. Moreover, thanks to this procreative meaning, there is nothing banal or ordinary about sexual activity. On the contrary, we must recognize the “proper greatness” associated with the sexual drive. A married couple experiences this “greatness” when they freely and conscientiously take up the task of procreation and provide a being with the gift of existence which is the source of all other perfections.

But what is the nature of this love between a man and a woman that is often set in motion by the sexual drive? Modern culture has grossly distorted the truth about love and seduced people into forgetting the link between sexuality and procreation. As a remedy, Wojtyla provides a phenomenological account of love which slowly discerns its ultimate meaning. His integral conception of love includes a metaphysical, psychological and ethical analysis. Wojtyla’s “metaphysical” analysis describes the common elements of human love which includes fondness (or attraction), longing for the other, and benevolence. Benevolence brings us close to the essence of love which is altruistic and always seeking the good of the beloved. Love must be reciprocal, and it must also include the moral union and commitment of friendship enhanced by the warmth of sympathy.

The most radical form of love is spousal love which is more than willing the good of the other but “giving oneself, giving one’s ‘I.’” This reciprocal self-giving becomes a total union of two persons, which is expressed and fortified through the sexual act. Spousal love is the pathway to the perfection of the human self that comes from the unconditional gift of oneself to another.

Love also includes a powerful psychological dimension. Spousal love is energized by sensuality and affectivity. Sensuality represents a spontaneous experience of the corporeal sexual properties of a person of the opposite sex, while affectivity is an experience of less sensuous properties such as feminine charm. While this dimension of love has a role to play, love is often falsely reduced to its psychological profile. Many people confuse sensuality and affectivity with the mature, responsible love that comes only from an intimate personal union and a caring for each other’s well-being.

Finally, love has an ethical dimension because love is a virtue as well as a passion. Authentic spousal love is distinguished from counterfeit versions by this ethical character. There is an enduring commitment as well as an assumption of responsibility for the other person’s welfare that becomes the basis for the reciprocal gift of self. Also, love must be unencumbered by sexual compulsion or obsession so that it can be freely given and received. Without freedom, the gift of self loses its authenticity and perfective powers. Spousal love, which goes beyond friendship and benevolence, must transcend sensuality, and it must be shaped by permanence, exclusivity, and a mutual belonging that allows each person to find him or herself in the other.

The third pillar of Wojtyla’s sexual morality is his personalistic vision of the virtue of chastity. Many people misconstrue chastity as prudishness, and philosophers tend to equate chastity with the virtue of temperance. But chastity is far more than the regulation of our desire for sexual pleasure. Chastity is the moral habit of being able to see a human being of the opposite sex with a certain moral depth so that one always recognizes that individual as a person rather than an object for use. Love requires the support of chastity to ensure that sexual relations are never depersonalized This virtue allows us to look beyond a person’s attractive body in order to transparently perceive the whole person as a being with an inner, spiritual life, who is not to be used simply for another’s gratification.

Only the chaste person, who affirms the dignity of the other, is free enough from lust or disordered sensuality to make a sincere gift of himself to another.  Thanks to chastity, the virtue of love is not overwhelmed by passion or emotion so that unselfish spousal love can flourish.

Wojtyla’s ultimate concern in this treatise is an ethical one: how does the human person avoid using others for pleasure and live up to the high calling of love, especially marital love? To answer this question Wojtyla turns to new sources that allow for a fresh philosophical articulation of love and chastity coherent with the Catholic tradition. For those who have not recently read this book, it may be a good occasion to take a second look with the help of this new translation. For those who are unfamiliar with Love and Responsibility, a careful reading will uncover a suitable moral framework that penetrates to the heart of what is wrong with our contemporary sexual culture.


  • Richard A. Spinello

    Richard A. Spinello is Professor of Management Practice at Boston College and a member of the adjunct faculty at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. He is the author of Four Catholic Philosophers: Rejoicing in the Truth along with The Splendor of Marriage: St. John Paul II’s Vision of Love, Marriage, Family, and the Culture of Life.

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